How To Make Your Company Values Valuable


I gathered 1001 values from 172 businesses. Yes, it took a while. Upon reviewing them I noticed several patterns. I also formed insights on how businesses intend to use their stated values vs. what actually happens based on my work with businesses over the past 20 or so years.

We’ll review what patterns I found in these 1001 values, what are business values, really (or at least what they should be), and some examples of values positioned well and poorly. Let’s dig in.

Most organizational values sound the same

In my review of the 1001 values I found most to be vague and non-differentiating. We’re going to review some specifics below, but what I found was inline with findings from a Harvard Business Review article that states, “55% of all Fortune 100 companies claim integrity is a core value, 49% espouse customer satisfaction, and 40% tout teamwork.”

My sample set of 172 business ranges from SMBs to large enterprises, but didn’t differ much from that HBR finding.

Here are the top 10 rankings (with ties) including 15 separate values:

Value Term (Normalized)Number of instancesRanking% of Businesses using
Teamwork / Collaboration39223%
Customer Centric37322%
Do the right thing15911%
Play / Fun14108%
This table presents the top 15 most common value sets in the top 10 ranking positions.

Like the top value, “integrity,” you’ll likely notice these are abstract terms for the most part. But, there’s something else about most of these top terms that sticks out to me. These are probably intended to be aspirational, but actually present concepts that should be foundational, table stakes even. Values like acting with integrity, doing the right thing, and having a goal of excellence don’t seem very differentiating. The alternative would be duplicity and mediocrity. It’s really kind of a low bar (even though some companies may not even reach that low bar).

The second most popular value was “Teamwork / Collaboration” with 23% of businesses including it. But again, working with others isn’t much of a value as a mere description of what having coworkers is like. Plus, values like this are often left unexplained other than some tautological statement such as, “We achieve more when we work together.”

A concentric model of organizational decision-making

Most published values are generally synonymous as beliefs. They are inherently abstract, dogmatic or ideological. The most common values lean toward presenting a set of ethical or idealized standards rather than behaviors. And it’s that aspect of behavior that gets us to the root of the problem here.

Before we dig into behaviors vs. values let me offer this set of concentric or nested aspects of how a business operates and establishes decision-making. I’ll list them from the most abstract to the most pragmatic.

A chart showing the aspects of business identity: beliefs, position, strategy, values, and activities/tactics

A belief is a strongly held abstract conviction in an idea that cannot be proved empirically. A belief in an economic policy of distributing wealth could lead toward policies of Socialism or Trickle-down Economics. Beliefs show affiliation and directions, but not methods or outcomes.

This is a business’ space in their marketplace. It describes who they serve, what they offer and don’t offer, and what makes them differ from competitors. Though many competitors often have positions that are unfortunately interchangeable.

This is an organization’s approach to doing business. A strategy is a theory of how a business can be successful. At its simplest a strategy is, “this, not that.” There must be a set of choices and tradeoffs that can be proven right or wrong.

We’re finally down to values. On the continuum of abstract to pragmatic, we’re getting very practical at this point. Rather than a belief, values should be synched with behaviors. Values must guide choices and instigate actions. Let’s just call them behavioral values.

Activities and tactics are the individual expressions of behavioral values. Each is an example of the behavioral choices guided by values. A company that legitimately holds a behavioral value of “innovation” should demonstrate tactics of experimentation and Origination thinking.

Values instigate actions

Here’s a story of a behavioral value instigating an action. For several years I worked at a web design and marketing agency called Paramore. Owner Hannah Paramore created a set of behavioral values that we used to make daily pragmatic decisions. One of those values was “Do the Right Thing: We recommend the right thing for our clients, not necessarily the thing that will make us the most money.” Notice that value has two parts, a short title of “Do the Right Thing” and a full sentence describing the decision-making, “We recommend the right thing for our clients, not necessarily the thing that will make us the most money.”

At one point a developer, Ben, and I were working on some architectural changes to a website for a client. On a first pass we determined the work needed would cost around $10,000. It was an important change and the client agreed to the fee. But Ben and I still felt that a simpler solution was possible. After some more work we developed a method that would cost less than $1000. Even though the client already agreed to the fee, we presented them with the updated approach. The client was even happier, though the agency made less money. Ben and I did not need to clear this change with management. The value of “Do the right thing” told us what to do. It made our decision and instigated an action.

But most of the values in this list of 1001 don’t help to instigate action. They are more just a description of what the creators think a good company culture should be. And, they often duplicate the values of their competitors. When values merely communicate a belief system rather than a behavior system they don’t let clients or employees know how the company will act. They don’t reveal what it might be like to work with or buy products from that company.

Real values are often hidden

Before creating a set of truly useful, pragmatic behavioral values an organization must do the hard work of determining what their current values are. These are likely founded in their true beliefs. So, they’ll need to reveal those too. The struggle here is that an organization’s real beliefs and values are often hidden from their knowledge and even in conflict with any stated values. Determining your real values often requires an outside perspective. Otherwise it’s like trying to look at the label from inside the jar.

I worked with a client who had a hidden but real behavioral value of keeping information from others in the company. A key example involved keeping one principal executive from discussing certain issues with the other principal executive. They knew if they didn’t it would result in shouting matches in the office and degrade the work they were doing. They believed this executive couldn’t be trusted with certain information and so they instinctively enacted their behavioral value of restricting information from them. This value did the job of instigating behaviors and tactics, albeit unhealthy ones.

It wasn’t until we uncovered this as a real, hidden value that we could identify the problem and determine how to address it. Eventually, this helped us create behavioral values that everyone could use to make decisions, even those principal executives.

These real but hidden behavioral values often end up being unintended compromises of stated values. Such as:

  • Do your best work, unless the client insists upon something else.
  • Champion diversity, unless it harms the way we make money.
  • Do the right thing, unless it conflicts with what shareholders want.
  • Be data driven, unless it makes us look bad.
  • Be honest, unless it’s about a mistake we made.
  • Be humble, unless you work for sales or marketing, are trying to get a promotion, are talking about a competitor, or someone suggests you should rethink a decision.

To be fair, values should be a bit challenging to fulfill. Well developed values should help your team make decisions day-to-day and propel the organization closer to fulfilling noble beliefs. If the decision is easy to make then the rubric of the behavioral value wouldn’t be needed.

So, what are some aspects of good, action-instigating behavioral values?

First, useful values are not instinctive. They are likely to feel difficult to achieve but obvious when you don’t. If a value doesn’t often challenge you then it’s not really something that’s motivating you to act your best. And, if you don’t live up to the value it should generate conflict until it’s resolved.

Values are a foundation for habit formation. Choosing a value of promoting diversity won’t be instinctive if a business doesn’t already have a robust DEI program. The value is there because it’s not instinctive, but is intended to motivate and develop the habit.

Second, pragmatic values generate or expose friction. This is especially true in the early stages of adopting values. New values are hard to live up to.

When values merely communicate a belief system rather than a behavior system they don’t let clients or employees know how the company will act.

I worked with a business who published a value promoting racial and cultural diversity. And yet, this 150+ person company featured an all white VP, executive, and c-level leadership roster. The publishing of this value instigated a poignant response from the non-white people who worked there. It created conflict and friction, but that’s what’s needed to move toward a real change.

Third, values aren’t just about your business; they’re used by your business. Remember, your real values are likely hidden from your view. Establishing new ones will start out as aspirational. But, they will begin to describe the business the more they are adopted over time. Values should be used to change your organization, not merely describe it.

Everyone in the organization should discuss the values often when making choices about how to behave. I worked at an agency, Think Company, who switched one of their published values from “Be nice to people” to “Be kind to people.” They discovered that being nice wrongly motivated people to not voice concerns or point out areas that needed improvement, whether that be in individuals’ work or the company as a whole. Shifting from nice to kind confirmed that respectfully pointing out issues to help others improve was allowed, as it was a kind thing to do. Though, it might not feel “nice” at the time. This shift from being nice to being kind was a common topic of conversation that team members used to make daily decisions.

Develop values to craft culture, not define it

My review of these 1001 values revealed that most organizations develop them to describe a culture they hope the public believes. Most aren’t intended to really give clear, pragmatic guidance to the members of that organization on how to make daily decisions. Creating a set of challenging behavioral values will help craft the culture you want to live out, not just an idealized fiction.

So, don’t be like most of these businesses. Instead, do the work to determine what your current beliefs and values truly are. Come to terms with them and develop a set of behavioral values to guide everyone, from the CEO to the most junior employee. These will help you make the tough decisions that will create an authentic and differentiated culture.

Below is the spreadsheet with the full list of values, number of instances, and organizations featuring the values.

(A few notes about the list. When reviewing each value I clustered like terms together. For instance, if I found three values such as “We act with excellence,” “Be excellent,” and “Excellence,” I included each of these into the single term set of “Excellence.” Second, companies change the way and methods they list their values often. Each of these were a published value at some point, but my list may or may not reflect their current state.)

Full Values Spreadsheet


The Strategic Web is an independent consultancy focused on innovation strategy. I help businesses and organizations develop strategies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and progress out of static practices.

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Scott Hutcheson